03 January 2019
Swish and chips
True to its name, War Chest promises a wealth of riches to those who take a peek inside its compact coffer. It’s a hoard of hordes, packed with dozens of delightfully dense poker chips that represent the game’s various medieval fighters, be they archers, cavalry, knights, scouts or more, on the abstract hex-grid board.
The weight of the coins is the heaviest thing about War Chest. For one thing, you don’t need to know what all 16 unique units do from the off – just the four in your army and their four counterparts on the opposing side. Their abilities are handily summed up on cards randomly dealt (or specifically drafted, after you’ve a few games under your belt) during setup, and it doesn’t take long to drop into the habit of making sure crossbowmen have an unobstructed firing line or ensuring pikemen stay close to inflict collateral damage when engaged in melee combat.
Attacks are just as straightforward: remove one enemy coin, either eliminating a single unit or weakening a stack bolstered by matching chips. It’s a truly impressive simplification of classic wargaming strategy into an abstract form without sacrificing interesting tactical decisions – if you can learn chess, you can pick up War Chest.
War Chest combines the predictable purity of its asymmetric pieces and boiled-down combat with the random excitement and tension of a bag-building game. A hand of chips is pulled from a sack (like its contents, beautifully luxurious) each round, giving their player the choice of controlling an identical piece on the board, deploying a unit or ‘recruiting’ more coins from their reserves to the bag to draw in future rounds. The random drawing means that War Chest becomes more than a game of pure skill, for better and worse; it can be frustrating to see immobile units destroyed as the result of unfortunate draws, but the opportunity to influence your luck and tailor your army to a certain play style with the right additions to your bag gives the game a brilliantly original appeal.
It’s an appeal that starts out full of promise but can begin to wane as matches draw on. The rules outline a single way to win: place all of your faction’s control markers on designated hexes by claiming control of those locations with units. The opening minutes are the game’s best, as you deploy, expand and begin to fine-tune your bag of coins in line with your plans to skillfully outmanoeuvre your opponent using your unique quartet
Yet, even with less aggressive players, combat becomes all but unavoidable in order to try and hold off the enemy army. Losses begin to mount on both sides. And the game… slows down. Killed units are returned to the box rather than your bag or reserves, so every loss means units take longer to move around, attack and claim locations. In the worst scenarios matches can completely stagnate in the latter half, with the possibility for some units to freeze and become near-useless as the result of the bag being drained of matching tokens, while the few remaining dance around the board in the hope of striking a killing blow or crucial capture thanks to a lucky draw. Shared player experience helps to stop the total loss of momentum, but this can make it frustrating for newcomers to learn – especially as the random unit selection can hand one player even more of an advantage if they’ve played before.
It’s a real shame when it ends up bogged down in these situations, as War Chest otherwise delivers on successfully combining the satisfying strategy of a traditional abstract game with the customisation and controllable chance of a bag-builder. And gosh, those coins just feel so good to plonk down. You just have to hope that it pulls it out of the bag.
War Chest promises a lot, and it largely delivers on offering a unique and exciting blend of traditional and modern strategy in a gorgeous bundle. But it occasionally finds itself frustrating and dragging in the second half as the result of inexperienced play or bad luck, and that makes the otherwise easy-to-learn rules hard to introduce to others.
Designer: Trevor Benjamin, David Thompson
Artist: Brigette Indelicato
Time: 30 minutes
This review originally appeared in the November 2018 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
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